I am sensing some tension between my advisor and I, now that I am in the last year and finishing my dissertation. Communication seems to take forever and short almost ambiguous feedback. We used to talk frequently, but lately things seem strained. What can I do to repair the relationship?

--Worried

Dear Worried,

Thank you for asking this question because communication with your advisor is one of the most important elements of a successful graduate career, but it’s also one of the most ignored. In this time of your graduate career, a major thing you’ll have to remember is the amount of stress that you and your advisor are experiencing.

Here are a few things that I hope will bring new perspective to your situation:

Put yourself in your advisor’s shoes.

I know, I know. We’ve all heard this statement more than we probably want to. But it will help you figure out why your advisor isn’t responding with detailed, frequent emails. How many projects does your advisor have going on all at once? How many classes is he/she teaching? What kinds of issues might be going on at home? These are the questions you need to ask yourself so that you can gain a different perspective for the situation.

Looking again at things that advisors are juggling will help students understand why they might not be responding in a timely manner. Try to be patient and give your advisor a little more time to respond to you, and then email a friendly reminder that you are waiting for a reply from them.

Try not to take things personally.

As I said before, you and your advisor are in crunch time and are stressed — now, more than ever — because of how close you are to completing your dissertation. You have been working toward this goal for a number of years now, and your time with your advisor probably seems tense because of the pressure to complete your dissertation.

Imagine other situations in which you or friends were stressed about completing a project or were put under pressure in some way. You probably weren’t in the best of moods when talking with others about that particular situation (or when talking with others about anything, for that matter). You and your advisor could be experiencing this same issue. When you talk about your dissertation together, you both might be under so much stress and pressure that you’re unsure of how to communicate effectively.

Understand that your advisor might purposefully be pulling away.

Because you’re finding yourself at the end of your dissertation road, your advisor could be creating a small distance between you two because he/she might want you to finish your dissertation more on your own and take ownership of your project.

From what you wrote about the relationship that you’ve had with your advisor up to this point, it seems that your advisor has provided you with almost everything you need. Your advisor could be using this time to help push you into independence. You’ve depended on your advisor to help you with your dissertation up to this point, but it might be time to take it into your own hands and make a finished product.

This list shows you different ways that you can look at this situation with your advisor. I hope they help bring a new perspective, but I understand that they don’t necessarily give you tips on how to make your relationship with your advisor better. You asked me how to repair the relationship, but I don’t think that the relationship is broken. You mentioned that it does seem strained, but there are ways to alleviate this tension.

For instance, try to bring an air of less pressure. I understand this can be hard because it’s your dissertation and like a child to you, but if your advisor sees less stress and pressure in your eyes, he/she will begin to mirror that. Show your advisor a more patient attitude and a forgiving countenance when you two have a meeting.

Depending on how you think your advisor will take this, you might even try to gently bring up the subject. Just ask a few different questions about how he or she is doing and how you can help alleviate some stresses. Again, this tip will only go well if you feel that your advisor can answer your questions and take no offense.

I hope that these tips helped. A lot of what you might have to do in this situation will have to happen on the inside; you’ll have to take a few steps back and look at the issue in a few different ways. Examine the issue from a few different angles, and you should be able to go from there. Then, you can decide if you should approach your advisor or just provide a less stressed and more patient attitude.

--René Paulson, PhD

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